"My husband is the best Chinese chef in Zambia," says Liu Xiuyi, a former takeaway employee from Chongqing. "Whenever the president has Chinese guests in Lusaka, my husband is hired to cook for them."

Twenty years ago, with no savings or formal education, the couple emigrated to Zambia when Liu's husband was hired as a chef by a Chinese state-owned construction company contracted to build roads in dusty Lusaka.

Now in their 50s, the Lius have just built a 15 million kwacha (HK$18.3 million) three-star hotel and restaurant, called the Golden Chopsticks, in the former British colonial outpost of Livingstone. They also own property in the Zambian capital; employ about 100 staff, local and Chinese; and rub shoulders with presidents and diplomats.

The Lius are among the estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Chinese living in the copper-rich southern African nation - weak census practices mean precise figures are elusive - and were among the first wave of daring migrants who sought their fortune here.

Although mining and construction brought the Chinese to Zambia, their presence is now having a significant effect on another industry: tourism.

Zambia, one of Sub-Saharan Africa's most politically stable states, is an underdeveloped tourism market, home to wild elephants, lush safari parks and the world's biggest series of waterfalls - the Mosi-oa-Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders", which was found by Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1855 and renamed after Britain's Queen Victoria.

In 2013, China became the world's largest outbound tourist market, with an increasing number of the estimated 100 million Chinese who left the mainland for leisure travel turning their attention away from Europe towards Africa; Chinese tourist arrivals to the continent grew by 56 per cent from 2011 to 2012.

Liu's 40-room hotel - where Shanghai-produced furniture and artwork line the corridors, Chinese television station CCTV plays in the guest rooms and fried rice is served for breakfast - is part of a wave of Chinese-owned properties seeking to lure the tourist yuan to Zambia.

"The Chinese are travelling the world," says Liu, "We want them to know about Victoria Falls."

VICTORIA FALLS IS THE largest curtain of falling water in the world, with 500 million litres plummeting down per minute. Peaking at 99 metres, it is twice the height of Niagara Falls, the three falls that straddle the border between Canada and the United States. Yet while Niagara generates US$30 billion a year in tourism-related revenue, Victoria Falls - which also straddles a border; that between Zambia and Zimbabwe - brings in just US$1.5 billion.

Once, it was the Zimbabwean side that generated the majority of income from the falls; Livingstone was a textile and timber hub. However, after President Robert Mugabe's endorsement of land grabs in the early 2000s, which saw white farmers murdered, beaten and evicted from their land, Zimbabwe's tourism industry collapsed. By 2006, hotel occupancy in Victoria Falls - the town that faces Livingstone across the Zambezi river - had fallen to 30 per cent. The economic and political meltdown drove tourists into Livingstone's arms, and it was able to capitalise in large part thanks to an influx of cheap Chinese engineering expertise.

"Most of the contracts are given to Chinese companies not because they are favoured but because they deliver on time"

In 2004, Zambia had secured a US$28.8 million World Bank loan to diversify its economy; tourism was highlighted as a key sector and Chinese companies in Livingstone won tenders to resurface the town's main arteries, install street lighting to increase safety, and improve the drainage system, so the town would no longer flood during the rainy season, when tourist arrivals peak because the thundering falls are at their swollen best.

"Most of the contracts are given to Chinese companies not because they are favoured [politically] but because they deliver on time, and - unlike Zambian firms - they have the capacity," says Harold Mweene, regional tourism coordinator for the town. When local contractors are awarded such jobs, they often disappear with the money or the projects never get finished.

"This is the town that China built," he jokes.

"In mainland China, the rate of profit on construction projects is about 2 per cent, so in Zambia, Chinese companies are happy to earn 10 per cent, whereas Western firms want 30 or 40 per cent," says Barry Sautman, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who specialises in Sino-African relations.

With the completion of the town's US$13 million airport terminal, China now greets visitors to Livingstone when they fly in, transports them on its roads and, in many cases, checks them in to its hotels. Everyone in Livingstone now knows how to say, " Ni hao".

As Chinese soft power in Zambia increases, so do tourist arrivals. In 2013, 67,000 Chinese tourists visited the country and, last year, the Zambian Tourist Board (ZTB) partnered with CCTV to film a Zambia-based episode of popular television series Air Hostess, which airs on China Southern Airlines flights and regional TV stations around China.

"We have seen a tremendous rise in Chinese and Japanese tourists since the redevelopment," says Frank Mtolo, the town's friendly tourism inspector. "More and more just keep arriving. Coachloads of them. Although concerns about Ebola at the moment are something of a problem."

More than 8,000 Africans have died from Ebola since the outbreak began last March. Although Zambia has not reported a single case of the disease, the misery being wrought some 7,700 kilometres away, in West Africa, has been enough to deter tourists from visiting the country.

Assuming Ebola moves no closer, the next step, says Mtolo, is to establish direct flights between China and Livingstone, and for ZTB to open a Beijing bureau. Chinese investors in tourism are already being offered tax breaks and visa incentives.

Asian visitors to Livingstone tend to be in their late 40s or older and travel in groups (Post Magazine's flight to Livingstone from Johannesburg, in South Africa, was dominated by a Japanese tour group). They visit safari parks and take boat trips rather than get their ankles tied together to do the world's second-highest bungee jump, off the Victoria Falls bridge, which was built in 1905 at the behest of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

"The sky is blue every day and there is no pollution here"

There is, however, a second and unmeasured demographic: domestic Chinese visitors; those who work in Lusaka and the copper belt, in the north, and travel to Livingstone for holidays.

At the Zambezi Sun - a prestigious hotel close to the falls - Leo Wang, director of China Major Bridge Engineering, and Hu Zhongwen, managing director of engineering firm Hitecon, who have lived in Zambia for three and 20 years, respectively, are having a business meeting during such a break.

The men arrived in chauffeured Land Rovers with blacked-out windows.

The previous evening, over fried noodles at the Golden Chopsticks, they thrashed out the details of a plan to build a bridge from Botswana to Zambia, across the Zambezi. Today, they are celebrating at the Zambezi Sun's poolside restaurant, as the resident zebras graze by the pool.

Does this upmarket establishment experience etiquette issues with Chinese visitors, as Hongkongers do? Selina Phiri, guest relations manager at the hotel, looks puzzled when asked the question.

"They are good people, they don't like to cause a fuss," she says.

Hotel lobbies across Livingstone now welcome guests with copies of The Oriental Post, a domestic newspaper written in Chinese, and - in, perhaps, the most dramatic display of Chinese cultural capital here - Zambia's biggest-selling national newspaper, The Post, now publishes two pages in the language every day.

"We have been printing [in Putonghua] for two months," says Leticia Mutale, a senior editor at The Post. "We felt there was a need to diversify into other languages to build our readership."

FOUR KILOMETRES DOWN the road from the Golden Chopsticks lies the Oriental Swan, another Chinese hotel, which cost its mining tycoon owner 15.5 million kwacha to build. Xuan Yabiao, who is based in Lusaka but hails from Jiangxi province, has a hotel in Johannesburg, recently opened another property in Kitwe, in the copper belt, and plans to build a fourth, again in Livingstone, next year.

The three-star Swan's grand opening in September was national news; in attendance were Kenneth Kaunda, the country's ballroom dancing-loving first democratic president, now aged 90, and Chief Mukuni, the influential local tribal leader. '

The Swan's proprietor - known locally as Mr Brown - doesn't come from a hospitality background. After two decades in the country, he is choosing to diversify his wealth and, alongside Zambian receptionists, cooks and cleaners, he has recruited chefs and managers from China.

"My parents worry about malaria and the diseases but I tell them I have a good feeling in Africa," says hotel manager Mooshi Lee, a 27-year-old university graduate who struggled to find work in China, where, some estimates suggest, 16 per cent of graduates aged between 21 and 25 are unemployed. Xuan's wife recruited her from Jiangsu through the internet.

"The sky is blue every day and there is no pollution here," says Lee.

The hotel - which is designed in a traditional Chinese courtyard style - works with tour operators in China, who are sending visitors by the coachload.

"What the Chinese are seeing is the gap between supply and demand. Supply in Zambia doesn't offer mid-range, good service hotels that demand actually wants - there's just super expensive and extremely cheap," says Solange Guo Chatelard, a PhD candidate at the Paris Institute of Political Science, in France, who has researched the Chinese diaspora in Zambia.

She believes the HK$500-a-night hotels belonging to Liu, Xuan and a host of other Chinese entrepreneurs across the nation will attract not only Asian tourists, but also Zambians: "You've got a growing middle class in Zambia, their wealth fuelled by foreigners coming in, and the Chinese have clocked that these mid-range tourists don't need as much service - the pool or the mini-bar - they just want clean rooms." 

CHIEF MUKUNI RECENTLY proclaimed that Zambia now has 73 tribes, with the addition of the Chinese. It was a deft diplomatic move.

Mukuni is chief of the Leya tribe. He holds a degree in economics from Britain's Oxford University and, in the 1980s, he served as marketing director of oil giant BP in Africa before establishing the Mukuni Big Five safari park, where visitors can walk with lions and ride elephants.

Having recently made headlines in Zambia for purchasing a US$200,000 limousine while his subjects live in huts without electricity, Mukuni is well-acquainted with the wealth tourism can bring and is a driving force in the local sector.

He was instrumental in ensuring the exclusive Zambezi Sun and Royal Livingstone hotels were built in Livingstone at the beginning of the 2000s; sits on the board of Sun Hotels, which owns the two properties; and has test-run many local tourist products, from that famous bungee jump to white water rafting in the gorges below.

His mud-walled, thatched roof Lumpasa Palace lies at the dusty entrance to Mukuni village, a 13th-century settlement 7km east of Livingstone that's home to 10,000 but appears as a one-road spec on Google Maps. Palace visitors must crouch beside a pair of stone lions and clap three times before entering the circular hut, where Mukuni sits on a wooden throne, beside a lion-skin rug and a stool made from an elephant's leg.

Mukuni, the most powerful tribal chief in Zambia, is lobbying for legislative changes to attract more Chinese tourists.

"Many Chinese must travel miles to the Zambian embassy in Beijing to get their tourist visa. When you have that kind of arrangement, in one hand you are beckoning people to come and in the other you are pushing them out," he says.

Such mixed messages come as no surprise, perhaps, from a government that has historically been conflicted over the presence of Chinese in Zambia. President Michael Sata seized power in 2011 on the back of a vociferously anti-Chinese campaign. He derided Chinese migrants as "infesters", rather than "investors", who too often employed their own countrymen and had scant respect for labour laws.

"The next world will be Chinese. We must start training our people in their cuisine and their ways."

His rhetoric fed into public anger sparked by flashpoint events, such as the 2005 explosion at a Chinese-owned factory that killed 50 workers and the shooting of Zambian workers complaining about poor wages and conditions by a Chinese coal mine manager in 2010.

However, once in power, even "King Cobra" couldn't resist the yuan and, as of the end of 2012, Beijing and the Chinese private sector had together invested US$2.5 billion in the nation.

Mukuni now wants Lusaka to go beyond Sata's policies and waive visas altogether for Chinese tourists during the quieter, dry season: "We don't care about the colour of the money, we just want to boost our tourist industry. We are a developing nation, we can't be too proud. There are so many people in China, they are a very big market for us to tap into."

As a cock crows in the village, Mukuni reveals that his two daughters are studying in Guangzhou, undertaking degrees in economics and business administration. The princesses can read and write Chinese, with the youngest having taken classes at the nearby Confucius Institute, in Livingstone.

"The next world will be Chinese," Mukuni says. "We must start training our people in their cuisine and their ways."

AS LIVINGSTONE BENEFITS from a Chinese makeover, competition for the yuan is increasingly coming from the other side of the white water. After becoming a pariah in the West, Mugabe in 2003 launched a "Look East" policy and he is now trying to rebuild Zimbabwe's tourism industry.

Zimbabwean tourism minister Walter Mzembi last year called Victoria Falls a "sleeping giant" which the country must leverage and - to international outcry - proposed building a US$300 million Disneyland-type theme park beside the Unesco World Heritage site.

A more sensible announcement from the minister came last month: his government is negotiating with Beijing to provide visas-on-arrival for Chinese tourists.

Meanwhile, in the capital of Harare, the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Corporation is building a US$200 million shopping mall and five-star hotel, while in Victoria Falls, the Chinese influence is taking root with a Wok 'n' Roll takeaway; a Chinese manager at the 294-room Kingdom Hotel; and Jin's Restaurant and Guesthouse, which is run by two twenty-something graduates from Beijing eager to escape the pollution and political restrictions of their home country.

While Zimbabwe attracted only 16,523 Chinese tourists in 2013 - paltry in comparison with South Africa's 130,000 Chinese arrivals in 2012 - the logic seems to be: if you build it, they will come.

Zimbabwe's best attempt at luring tourists away from Zambia comes in the shape of the Victoria Falls International Airport, which is being dramatically expanded by China Jiansu; a US$150 million project that is being financed by China Exim bank. When completed later this year, the new runway will be able to handle Airbus A340s and Boeing 777s and 747s - aircraft capable of flying long-haul routes - while the expanded terminal will increase capacity from 500,000 arrivals a year to 1.5 million.

The order for China to handle the contract, according to local media reports, came straight from the Old Man; controversially, it was not put out to public tender.

At the construction site, warning signs in big, red characters flank the entrance, where three Zimbabweans and a Chinese worker are chatting in Putonghua. Beyond the gate, Steve Tan, head of human resources for the project, is smoking Chinese cigarettes inside a Portakabin, one of hundreds that form a mini-village, where the workers sleep, eat and socialise.

"Our company is very famous in China, we have branches in most African countries, Botswana, Kenya and Mozambique," says Tan, who is responsible for the site's 300 Zimbabwean and 100 Chinese employees, the latter being mainly engineers and chefs. "When we go home we can talk to our relatives and tell them to come here. Some people back home don't know about the Victoria Falls because they are not familiar with Africa."

But Tan is not going home. "I've been here for seven years and I like it," he says. "There's more freedom."

GUESTS HAVE STARTED TO check in to Liu's bright-orange home-away-from-home and the Chinese pamphlets advertising attractions have arrived. The staff are under strict instructions to ensure the Livingstone Golden Chopsticks lives up to the reputation of its Lusaka namesake.

The grand opening, however, has been delayed by the sudden death of Sata (who succumbed to an undisclosed illness in a London clinic in October). Zambia is gridlocked by a state of official mourning, and its political system is being rocked.

The country heads to the polls on January 20, in an election that is currently too close to call.

Liu is unfazed by the drama; the Chinese in Zambia - unlike the colonial powers who first built Livingstone - have not embroiled themselves in politics; only business.

"Sata was a good man, he liked my company very much," she says, pulling up a picture on her phone of the pair together at an official function.

"In Zambia, I enjoy the people and they enjoy me. Some people accuse the Chinese of exploiting the Zambians, but we are working together."

Twitter @jenn1marsh

By the same author: Afro-Chinese marriages in Guangzhou